Steven Hyden has a few thoughts about classic rock.
In his terrific new book, Twilight of the Gods, Hyden reckons with the future of the music he loves, looking forward to a not-so-distant time after his idols die, retire, or stagger off into irrelevance. As the cultural critic at UPROXX, and as a former staffer at Grantland and the A.V. Club, Hyden has pondered these questions for years, but they’ve taken on a new urgency for him. Hyden digs deep into what makes classic rock tick, and along the way he indulges in his infectious love of the music’s mythology, reevaluates the careers of heroes like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, and Bob Dylan, and preemptively counters every snide remark you’re ready to make about his Phish fandom.
I’ll be talking to Hyden tonight about Twilight of the Gods at an event at Magers & Quinn. To warm up for our discussion, I played him six songs that come up in the book, and asked him to riff off them.
The Beatles, "I Will"
City Pages: In the book you discuss why The White Album is your favorite Beatles record, and say “it’s remarkable how much of ’70s rock can be traced directly back to [it],” finding the roots of Sabbath in “Helter Skelter,” Pink Floyd in “Dear Prudence,” and the Eagles in this song, “I Will.”
Steven Hyden: It’s a very soothing, folky, slight song—there’s a “Peaceful Easy Feeling”-like vibe to it. It’s this acoustic ditty, it lasts about maybe two minutes, the kind of song Paul McCartney could’ve written in his sleep in 1968. But I’ve always liked it. It’s not the best Beatles song; it would never make a playlist of Beatles songs for me. But I do like how that songs exists on the same album as “Helter Skelter” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” a song that would probably not have come out had it been a 14-track record.
Because it is so broad, and there are so many different kinds of music in there, [The White Album] does feel like a preview of the broadness of the ’70s, a very musically broad decade where there were a lot of things going on. This is the Beatles saying, “This is everything that we can do. We focus on this one area usually but we’re capable of going off in all these different directions.”
Truth be told, they’re better at some things than others, but people tend to disagree on what they’re good at, because there’s just so much there. I really love the hard-rocking songs on that album, like the screaming songs. But there are people who say we don’t need “Yer Blues” if we’ve already got “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” who might say, “How many John Lennon screaming songs do we need?”
Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”
CP: You mention this as one of the great songs Dylan kind of inexplicably leaves off his albums. Why do you think he’s so careless in this way?
SH: The paradox of Bob Dylan is that he’s acknowledged to have made some of the most influential and greatest rock albums ever, and yet he’s not very good at making albums. The recordings are haphazard or the arrangements are nonexistent, he doesn’t seem interested a lot of the time in getting the best performance of a particular song. And he’s not a very good judge of his own material, especially once you get into the ’80s, where there are all these great songs that don’t end up on proper albums. And when you listen to his albums, you can’t really understand why he included the songs he did and left off the songs he left off.
“Blind Willie McTell” is the most obvious example of that for a lot of Dylan fans. The song was recorded around the time of Infidels—a pretty good album. But there’s a song on there called “Neighborhood Bully,” which is Bob Dylan talking about the Middle East, and not a very good song, or “Union Sundown”—you listen to those songs and then listen to “Blind Willie McTell” and it’s inexplicable that he wouldn’t put it on the record. It’s so perverse that it almost feels like Bob Dylan is intentionally punishing his fans. And Infidels has a really ’80s sound that can be hard to listen to at first, but “Blind Willie McTell” is this totally naturalistic, beautiful, straightforward performance that’s very immediate and very moving. It’s hard to get past the obviousness of the greatness of that song. I’d love to hear him explain why he thought that wasn’t good enough to put on Infidels.
Neil Young, "Fuel Line"
CP: I was happy to see you call Neil Young’s 2009 album Fork in the Road—a weird conceptual album about electric cars I’ve always had a soft spot for, “surprisingly not-awful.” What can you say about Young’s later career?
SH: He’s made so many records in the past 20 years. He’s just bashing out music every year, and Fork in the Road seemed especially tossed off. It sounds like he wrote these songs just before recording them—maybe while he was recording them. This is so sing-songy, it’s almost like a song you’d play for your kids—if your kid wanted a lullaby about an electric car.
I don’t think Neil Young has made a great album since the ’90s. I don’t think anything he’s done in the 21st century is great. But I do admire his willingness to just keep swinging. As tossed off as the record seems, there’s a weird kind of commitment at the same time to say “I’m going to make a record about how people can get around in electric cars.” To commit to that, and to put that record out, there’s a weird integrity to that, that I admire.
My hope with all these albums is that 20 years from now, I’ll go back and I’ll appreciate them more than I did in the moment. As tossed off as this is, it is enjoyably batty. He’s writing songs almost like [Guided by Voices’] Robert Pollard does, where he’s like, “I’m writing 20 songs in the hope that two of them will be great—but I’m going to release all of them.”
Styx, “The Best of Times”
CP: One of the most moving parts of the book is where you talk about why bands like Styx or REO Speedwagon might have spoken to divorced people like your parents at the time.
SH: In the early ’80s you had all these corporate rock bands like REO Speedwagon and Journey, and when you think about them today, you could never imagine bands like that being pop stars. They’re all led by these white guys in their early to mid-30s and singing about people in their early to mid-30s, people who have families, people who were often going through divorces. They sang about very adult-oriented topics, doing it in this sort of melodramatic way that spoke to people’s sense of loss and still hope for the future, that maybe they could find someone else.
But also, there was a lot of payola in the music industry at this time. I interviewed Tommy Shaw from Styx and he talked about how he would go out with the PR guy and meet with program directors and keep their palms greased so that they would play the band’s music. He used the song “Come Sail Away” as an example—it was going up the charts, then it lost its bullet, and he went out and brought some radio people some “fun powder” and it got its bullet back.
So all this was going on, but at the same time, that music spoke to a lot people approaching middle age, people like my mom. She loved the REO Speedwagon record. That meant something to her. She was going through heartache at the time, and those big power ballads expressed what was going on with her. So this music is being propped up by this corrupt system, but at the same time, it’s also connecting with people in a real way. And that’s probably always the way it’s been with pop music—there’s always a little corruption, and there’s always a little human connection. And they have to work in sync, I guess, for people to become huge stars.
Wilco, “Hate It Here”
CP: I’ve always liked Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, but I’m a fair-weather Wilco fan at best, and I’ve always thought of myself as an outlier, so I was happy to see you stand up for it in the book.
SH: I talk about Sky Blue Sky in the chapter on “dad rock,” and I talk about how that term came into popularity. I guess for me, I like dads, and I like rock, and I like dad rock. When that record came out it was right around the time that I got married and it really resonated with me because [Jeff Tweedy] was writing about domestic issues. I think people who don’t like it dismiss it as sort of soft rock album with a lot of guitar solos, backing off from the more experimental, edgy stuff of A Ghost Is Born. But to me, lyrically, it’s a pretty heavy record. It’s a record about putting your faith in a partner, about how difficult that can be, and how even when things seems to be going well in a relationship there are always these storms that threaten to overtake you.
In the song, his partner is off somewhere and it seems like they’re having a fight and he’s trying to track her down, and he talks about doing dishes and he mows the lawn, and he just wants her to come back. And I think if you’re a certain age—who wants to hear a song about domestic life in your 20s? It just seems like a boring thing to write about. But to me that’s the happiest thing to write about, happier than the stuff you obsess over in your 20s, that more intense, fleeting, puppy love type stuff. When you actually love somebody and you’re worried that they might not love you anymore, that’s much more intense to me.
Prince, “Purple Rain”
CP: “Purple Rain” is the song we seem collectively to have agreed to remember Prince by, when we mourn him, and it’s a classic rock song, right?
SH: Totally. That whole record [Purple Rain] is a pretty “classic rock” album—not just because it’s a touchstone and it’s so popular, but it’s so guitar heavy. I don’t know how you could think that’s not a rock song. But it didn’t really get played on rock radio. There’s a gospel element to that, you can hear some soul music, but it’s not a funky song. It’s more of a stately song. It’s closer to “Stairway to Heaven” than it is to Sly and the Family Stone. And like a lot of grand classic rock type songs, it builds to this incredible guitar solo. It’s a Guitar Hero song.
Steven Hyden presents Twilight of the Gods
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 30
Tickets: Free; more info here